With the plethora of polls coming out these days, including at least two presidential job-approval ratings released daily, it's easy to become numb to the nonstop numbers. Sometimes it's helpful to step back and look at a president's ratings over time, both in the context of where his approval numbers have been and how his ratings compare with those of other White House occupants at this point in their presidencies.
In the major polls released so far for the month of September, President Obama's job-approval ratings have averaged 45 percent approval, 50 percent disapproval. In pollster parlance, that is "underwater" or "upside down" by 5 percentage points. Individually, the September polls have ranged from a low of 40 percent approval (with 54 percent disapproval), according to the Fox News poll, to a high of 47 percent approval (and 47 percent disapproval) in the ABC News/Washington Post survey. All of the other polls have shown approval ratings in a narrow band of 44 percent to 46 percent. Gallup found 44 percent approval (47 percent disapproval) in its tracking poll for the week of Sept. 16-22, and the most recent Pew Research/USA Today poll also showed a 44 percent approval rating (with disapproval at 49 percent). Both CNN and the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey had approval ratings of 45 percent (with 52 percent and 50 percent disapproval, respectively), and the CBS News/New York Times poll came in with 46 percent for both approval and disapproval. A Bloomberg poll Wednesday revealed approval of 45 percent (with 49 percent disapproval). In cases like this, it's useful to borrow the Olympic method of judging: Throw out the outliers—the high and low—and average the rest, which gives you 44.8 percent.
Gallup's 44 percent approval numbers for Obama are on the low end compared with Gallup's approval ratings for other post-World War II presidents at this point in their second terms. George W. Bush was virtually the same, at 45 percent; Bill Clinton was 14 points higher than Obama at 58 percent; Dwight Eisenhower was at 59 percent; and Ronald Reagan topped the list at 63 percent. Given the combo terms of John Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon/Gerald Ford, their second-term numbers are not terribly useful for comparative purposes. Reagan's numbers remained robust until almost two years into his second term, just after the 1986 midterm elections when the Iran-Contra affair blew up, sending his approval ratings into a nosedive. While Republicans suffered tough losses in that 1986 midterm election, the defeats were concentrated in the Senate, not in the House. The losses were not particularly related to Reagan; it was just that there were a large number of very weak freshman GOP senators, elected on Reagan's coattails in 1980, who got slaughtered when they had to stand for reelection on their own in 1986. Many of them could never have been elected except for the wave that swept them in. Their losses that year were not so much a reflection of the party or of Reagan, but rather of their own weak political circumstances. The House, a better barometer of a president's electoral impact, was little changed in 1986.
Gallup's Jeffrey Jones, looking at Obama's monthly ratings, found that the president's approval rating since he was reelected last year topped out at 53 percent in November, the month he won his second term, and then began a gradual drift downward to its current 44 percent level. Jones looked at the composition of Obama's approval numbers and found that since November, he has dropped 13 points among Democrats, from 91 percent in November to 78 percent so far in September, and has fallen 12 points among independents, from 49 percent in November to 37 percent this month. The fluctuation in approval among Republicans was minimal: In only one month, May, did Obama's approval reach 14 percent; each of the other months saw levels between 11 percent and 13 percent. It would be hard to drop very far when you are starting out so low.
What was most interesting in Jones's report was that Obama's lowest monthly approval ratings among members of his own party occurred during battles with Congress over the debt limit between August and October 2011, when he averaged just a 77 percent approval rating among Democrats. His peak monthly job-approval rating among Democrats was 91 percent last November. Jones speculated that the lead-up to the upcoming fiscal battles over funding the government and raising the debt ceiling, along with criticism over the president's handling of the situation in Syria, have likely contributed to the decline in approval among Democrats. In my judgment, it is more likely the latter than the former. Obama's approval numbers dropped the most among Democrats and independents, the groups among whom he had further to fall.
In the upcoming fiscal showdowns over the continuing resolution and the debt ceiling, Republicans are greatly exposed and could come out of this badly damaged. But as we saw in 2011, in a fight like this one, everyone can end up looking bad. In fact, the way it is shaping up, that's a pretty decent bet.